Defining Ideas

Morality Degraded: The Academy’s "New Science" of Odd Behavior

Tuesday, January 4, 2011
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Barbara Kelley

Human morality is a fine subject of study, always of interest and full of mysteries yet to be unraveled. Of course morality has been the subject of profound and passionate study for the entire span of recorded history, beginning with the early texts of the world’s great religions. That there are still unsolved mysteries after all these millennia should not deter us from the scholar’s quest; but it does suggest that we might approach the subject with some humility, perhaps even with a certain degree of awe and reverence.

The very existence of moral behavior raises the enormous question of why people ever try to pursue the good in the first place. Why not simply lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder, or whatever else it might take to grab maximum pleasure and advance our own interests in all ways possible? Yet most people actually do not do such things. In fact, once we get past the screaming headlines of the tabloids and sensationalistic "leads that bleed" of the nightly news, the extent to which everyday human behavior is civilized, law-abiding, and downright decent becomes plainly apparent. Most people generally resist whatever anti-social urges they may have. Why is that so?

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Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Layered on this non-trivial question is another rather remarkable phenomenon: A public expression of morality can have an inspirational influence on those who witness it. Leaders with powers of moral persuasion can induce their followers to make momentous sacrifices. Against their prior personal inclinations, people moved by moral visions have been known to throw themselves into breaches during battles, transcend their prejudices to make peace with old enemies, and turn over large shares of their own wealth to others. Why would people be moved to respond to elevating influences in this way? How could this work in a species known for its self-preserving instincts?

Resistance to temptation, sacrifice, commitment, inspiration—this is the stuff of the mysterious moral sense that has broadened individual lives and held societies together for all of human history. But this is very far from the stuff of a "new science of morality" that has emanated from the academy lately, and that is dominating the media’s treatments of morality in places such as "The New York Times." The "new science" is hard to square with the set of moral concerns that moves ordinary people to sacrifice and commitment in their own lives. The new science of morality has degraded the very way that morality is characterized and explained in contemporary public discourse.

How does this new science envision human morality? The lion’s share of the new science’s studies asks subjects a version of the following dilemma: A trolley car going 150 miles per hour loses its brakes while heading towards five hikers on the tracks. If the conductor lets the train stay on course, the five hikers will be run down. If he instead veers the train in another direction, he will run down just one hapless hiker who happens to be walking on a side track—but this means that the conductor will have done this actively, rather than passively, thus killing person intentionally rather than allowing the train to wreak its own havoc and kill five times that number of people.

By focusing on weird and improbable dilemmas like the trolley problem, the new science of morality says very little about the moral issues ordinary people actually face.

There are many variations on the "trolley problem," but none of them affects the point that I am making here: This is a strangely improbable situation (perhaps even impossible), that poorly matches what people experience or care about in their moral lives.

Most people love and care for their families, taking responsibility for their welfare. They dedicate themselves to their work and try to do it in a way that is socially responsible. They help friends in need. Occasionally, when under pressure, they even may perform morally courageous acts such as rescuing people in grave danger. On the negative side of the moral ledger, they may be tempted to cut in lines at the airport, cheat on their taxes if they think they can get away with it, and tell lies about what they have done. They may struggle to resist such temptations. These are the concerns of an ordinary moral life. I would gladly wager that no one in the long history of the world has ever has had to decide whether to kill one or five people while conducting a runaway trolley car.

Beyond hypothetical trolley cars careening out of control, there is yet another weird paradigm that has captured the imagination of many new moral scientists in the academy today. A method of study in this paradigm is to trigger feelings of disgust by asking subjects to think about abhorrent activities such as incest between a brother and a sister or sex with dead chicken parts. When subjects instantly recoil from such ideas (as they do, not surprisingly), their reactions are taken as evidence that morality is ruled by unconscious emotions rather than principled choice. As Jon Haidt, the most talented of the psychologist to employ this paradigm has noted in a "Science" article, the defining assumptions of the new science include "the importance of inborn moral intuitions (and) the socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking…"

In other words, according to this new science dogma, moral behavior is ruled by impulses rather than by conscience, truth, faith, rationality, or any of the noble ideals that scholars have previously assumed to have inspired good and courageous acts during the finer moments of human history.

Now we might pause a moment to question whether refraining from having sex with a dead chicken should be considered a moral act at all. There are very many reasons why a person would choose not to have sex with a dead chicken. Morality may be one of them, but for me it is not high on the list. Speaking personally, I in fact do have moral objections to such an act; but these objections are a bit abstract and would require some time to pin down exactly. It would be disgust that would cause me to recoil from such an act, but not moral disgust, just plain old-fashioned skin-crawling disgust of the sort that I would feel if a cockroach crawled on my hand. Morality plays no part in such feelings of disgust; and disgust has nothing to do with most moral sentiments.

The new dogma believes that our moral behavior is ruled by biological impulses, rather than by conscience, truth, faith, rationality, or other noble ideals.

Perhaps the best-known proponent of the dogma that, to quote him, "morality is grounded in our biology" is Harvard professor Marc Hauser, whose popular book "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong" draws heavily on hypothetical trolley car responses. Hauser writes, based on such dubious evidence, that his central idea is that "we evolved a moral instinct …designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar of action."

Interestingly, this kind of biological determinism leads not only to a vision of human nature as bound by uncontrollable instinct, but also to a new moral relativism. The fallacious logic goes like this: The bold new science can’t get away with pure biological determinism as it is impossible to deny the obvious variations in moral behavior across cultures. Thus, the environment must be given a certain degree of credit.

But since the new science consciously rules out truth-seeking as ineffectual, there can be no role for human judgment in deciding how to interpret and value environmental experience. The only environmental factor that is admissible in the new scientific courtroom is whatever cultural values humans (who are seen as mere response machines lacking agency) happen to be exposed to. All of these cultural values have equal moral status as arbitrary artifacts of their particular cultures. To the extent, therefore, that humans are not enslaved by their inborn biological reactions, they are helplessly dragged around by cultural values that are also beyond their control. Not much room here for a person who tries to build an ordinary life as a good citizen, worker, and family member—let alone for history’s moral heroes.

One such hero comes immediately to mind. Several months ago, I saw "Invictus, " the stirring Clint Eastwood movie about Nelson Mandela. The movie, based more or less on a true story, reveals some noteworthy truths about human morality. Mandela survived unbowed, with will and purpose intact, during twenty-seven years of hostile and unjust confinement in a small jail cell. Twenty-seven years at the prime of life—try to imagine that experience. Yet after Mandela was released, he made a determination to forgive those responsible for putting him in jail. Generous acts of forgiveness of this sort are an integral part of the world’s religious and moral traditions.

When he became his nation’s leader, Mandela put this spirit of forgiveness to work in a way that few could have anticipated. In the face of opposition and cries of betrayal from his own supporters, Mandela threw the blessings of his government behind the South African national rugby team, a hated symbol of white privilege among the black and colored communities. He invested his own time and political capital to build the team’s morale, and he avidly wanted the team to win. Few understood what Mandela was doing: his own bewildered staff counseled him against it.

But it worked. As time passed, everyone saw that he had created a brilliant strategy for uniting a society that had seemed hopelessly fractured. On a moral level, the sins of Apartheid were starting to be absolved; on a practical level, Mandela had strengthened his own political mandate and solidified his society.

Mandela is but one recent shining example in history’s pantheon of moral leaders. Every society honors those who have shown courage, commitment, integrity, and moral imagination in the service of the common good. Ordinary people, too, often make sacrifices and show such noble qualities, albeit in ways that may be less celebrated.

Wherever and whenever moral excellence is achieved in society, it is inspirational for those who observe it. This plain truth can never be explained by a science that reduces morality to biological impulses. Nor can it be observed in responses to peculiar experimental settings or wacky questions about trolley cars and skin-crawling sex.